Those who think that the onslaught of books and films constantly arriving on the market have told the Beatles’ complete story--think again. Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign and pure perseverance, the eagerly awaited Good Ol’ Freda presents another side of the Beatles’ story: that from the perspective of manager Brian Epstein’s assistant and president of the Official Beatles Fan Club. Freda Kelly, a charming and very private woman, lifts the curtain to allow fans a peek at life inside the group’s inner circle. At the same time, she refuses to violate the members’ privacy and remains steadfastly loyal to her former employers. Still, hearing Kelly tell her story for the first time in 50 years will delight casual and hardcore Beatles fans alike.
Using a roughly constructed timeline, Good Ol’ Freda shows how Liverpudlian Kelly transformed from a secretarial student who would spend lunch hours watching the Beatles perform at the legendary Cavern Club (“I saw them 180 times” she admits with a giggle) to Epstein hiring her as his private secretary. At age 17, Kelly found herself chairing the Official Fan Club and running the office of Epstein’s new management firm. From 1961 until the Beatles’ breakup, Kelly became a dear friend of the Beatles and their families. She grew particularly close to Ringo Starr’s mother, a jolly woman who Kelly considered a mother figure; her own mother died when Kelly was an infant.
Throughout the film viewers learn bits and pieces about Kelly’s life, and she takes us into her attic to show off some of her memorabilia. She reveals that she unfortunately gave away much of her collection in the mid-1970s, but she has no regrets. Remarkably most of her Beatles-related possessions went to fans--Kelly ensured it.
Anyone looking for bombshells or dirt about the Beatles will be disappointed, as Kelly describes little that hardcore fans would not already know. However, her unique perspective as both an employee and a fan is new. She coyly avoids answering whether she ever dated any of the Beatles (“That’s personal,” she says with a smile), and admits feeling conflicted when John Lennon would date other women while married to first wife Cynthia. “You want to say something,” she admits, but decided she had to honor her employers and not interfere with their personal lives.
Kelly later describes the difficult years after Epstein died. She took part in the Magical Mystery Tour film, but said it was unsuccessful in uniting the band. There were good times, too--she grins as she remembers the early days of Apple and the fun they had. But time marched on for her and the Beatles--like the group, she had moved on to other phases in her life. She had married and desired a family; when she began having children, she decided to resign. At that point, the Beatles had all but dissolved their partnership. “Freda, you were there at the beginning, you’re here at the end. It’s time to call it a day,” George Harrison told her at their final meeting.
Astoundingly, Kelly never capitalized on her brush with fame; instead, she retreated to a quiet life. She endured loss, namely the breakup of her marriage and her son’s untimely death, but survived with her good humor intact. She reveals in the film that she decided to tell her story for her grandchildren, and that “now, it’s done.”
The timeline can be a little confusing--title frames will identify a particular year, but Kelly then discusses events that occurred other years. However, this is a small criticism for an otherwise good-hearted film, one that profiles a seemingly ordinary woman with an extraordinary story. Have tissues handy for the final moments of Good Ol’ Freda, and be sure to stay for the credits.
On a personal note, I first saw Good Ol’ Freda at its world premiere during August’s Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago. Viewers were dabbing their eyes at the end, and when Kelly was brought onstage, a five-minute standing ovation started. While she displayed her usual modesty--she kept motioning for everyone to sit down--her smile and tears revealed her absorbing the much-deserved adulation. This event marked arguably one of the most emotional moments in the fan convention’s history, and I count myself fortunate to have been part of it.
Good Ol’ Freda opens this weekend at selected theaters, and will be available on VOD and iTunes. For more information, visit the film’s official website.